Class in England from the late Middle Ages to the end of the eighteenth century
in Literature and class
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Chapter 1 outlines the principal issues in the study of class and applies them to the history of England – then a ‘united’ Britain – from the late Middle Ages to the immediate aftermath of the French Revolution. The chapter shows how unstable English society was in the late fourteenth century. Ravaged by the Black Death, it was seriously under-resourced with pressures on both knights and peasants, as well as urban society, and the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the predictable result. An analysis of a series of revolts throughout the late Middle Ages enable us to understand the fractious nature of late medieval society in England, one in which class consciousness developed as both a reality and a concept. While we cannot see an obvious transfer of power from one class to another, we can observe social relations changing as the material conditions of existence alter. The move towards a more commercial and commercialized society was accelerated by the sale of monastic lands after the Reformation and subsequent technological developments enabled the development of agrarian capitalism. There was a significant growth in urban society, most pronounced in London, which precipitated further class conflict. Class distinctions were as often local as they were national. By the end of the eighteenth century, England was a country characterized by, in E. P. Thompson’s words, class struggle without class society. Daily life has always been structured in terms of class: if issues of class are ignored or disguised literary history is accordingly distorted and impoverished.

Literature and class

From the Peasants' Revolt to the French Revolution


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